Travelling, as always, reiterates how I can be any person and live anywhere in the world. I will always be an outsider, I will never ‘belong’ (what is belonging…), and yet I am here. Of course I indulge in such existential questions and analysis because I can afford to do it. If I was struggling on a daily basis, trying to earn a living, support other people, pay the bills, if I was a minority where I was not allowed to be live with my beliefs, my culture, if I did not have a voice at all then the idea of travelling seems distant and alien.
Even my minimalist backpacking is a privilege because I can afford to do it. I have the choice to do it. As an academic friend who studies multiculturalism and international students pointed out to me, such kind of travelling is an upper middle class indulgence. It is not just me trying to make do without certain travel luxuries because they are beyond my budget (well, some are) or in a non-consumerist manner; it is because I have the freedom to do so.
That said, travelling is a very humbling experience for me. I don’t see myself living in hotels and seeing places with travel groups. Intrepid is my word, my thing. Simply because in this space I meet the locals, I get to have conversations with fellow travellers on a similar journey, I see my place in this world. A nothingness, an inconsiderable speck, a spectre of self-centredness in her daily existence.
As I waited in the lounge to board my flight to La Paz I saw this tall, dark man, very distinctly Indian. I strained to look again. I had seen many ‘Indian’ looking (not indigenous) people in Santiago. I am one of them but I rarely get recognised as Indian. I am from everywhere but there. Except other Indians who stare at me suspiciously. Is she? Isn’t she? But she has no designer gear on her, she is in rags…and she is alone…Indians don’t travel by themselves, not women…I can see the emotions flicker across their faces…so I fit among the locals in Santiago. Never mind that me no hablo Español, hablo only poquito.
This man was definitely Indian. I placed him as either from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or interiors of Maharashtra. He had a moustache, a red thread on right wrist and a gold chain around his neck. All external markers of a Hindu male from India. Then I noticed the Indian passport. Bazinga! He looked at me suspiciously as I seated myself opposite him trying to eavesdrop. 😉 It was a group of four with the other three very possibly Chilean. I am pleased to report our man spoke impeccable Español. Rarely on my travels have I encountered an Indian speaking the local language or being so comfortable. It was quite cool.
On the flight sat next to me a man who kept peering at my book. He was, he seemed Chilean. Is that Arabic, he eventually asked me. No it is Marathi, my mother tongue.
Where is that from? So we got talking. He was going to La Paz on business and offered to help me find a taxi to go to the hotel because the Bolivians might swindle me. Does not cost about seventy Bolivianos? I had done all my research. Nah, he said, they might charge more. He said he had been to La Paz a couple of times on business. He had a factory in Santiago and made industrial chemicals. He was, he finally told me, third generation Chilean-Lebanese. His grandfather had moved to Santiago from Lebanon. He could not speak or read Arabic except for a few words. Habibi, I said. He laughed. Yalla! He laughed more. Do you eat fatoosh, hummus, falafel? How do you know, he asked. I don’t, I said. I assume you do. Food is the great memory from and of your ancestors. Fifth generation New Zealand Chinese still have Chinese food at home. Curries and mango pickle, Yorkshire pudding, pho, sushi/kimbap; different flavours, same desires and yearning. Putting down roots does not mean belonging. Putting down roots does not mean permanence.
So I travel. Seeking home. It can be India, somewhere in East/South-East Asia, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and now South America. Wandering, encountering, believing in the oneness and diversity of humanity.